Postcard: 2009 Devon Horse Show

McLain Ward and Sapphire win the Budweiser Grand Prix of Devon for his sixth time in front of a packed house at the 2009 Devon Horse Show. However, Friday morning's downpour and the subsequent flooding resulted in some classes being either postponed or cancelled.

> VIEW PHOTO GALLERY | © 2009 by Nancy Jaffer”] [/caption]

Devon, Pa., May 29, 2009 — At 5:30 a.m. yesterday, people started lining up in front of the Devon Horse Show’s ticket office to secure one of 240 coveted wristbands, which would enable them to spend grand prix evening on the pale blue benches that hug the rail of the Dixon Oval.

It was a new procedure instituted in the interests of keeping the peace this year; I heard that in 2008, there were altercations over rights to those first come-first served spots for the biggest night of the 10-day show.

“Things got a little crazy,” one of the ticket sellers cheerfully confided to me about the situation last year.

I think they’re still a little crazy. Do you want to buy a reserved seat? Better send your check early. It’s always standing room only, and precious little of that, for the $100,000 Budweiser Grand Prix of Devon. The crowd was so dense across the ring from the benches that it looked like a mosh pit. Over by the concession stands, the line for the cheese fries stretched back practically to the tea sandwiches booth. Trying to get from point A to point B in the early evening, I was stymied in front of a table where someone mistook my inability to move because of the crowd as a sign that I was waiting to buy a raffle ticket from him.

If you could take the enthusiasm expressed for Thursday night at Devon and spread it around the country, equestrian competition would be a major league sport. But you can’t; the Devon phenomenon is unique, a part of the Main Line psyche that is the fabric of generations in this part of the Philadelphia suburbs. The box seats in the grandstand above the benches are passed down through families. The male boxholders usually wear sport coats and perhaps a jaunty bowtie; the ladies are attired in dresses and fancy hats. The folks at ringside wear more informal clothing, but boxholder or benchsitter, they all have something in common: They wouldn’t dream of missing Devon, creating the atmosphere that makes this show so special.

John and Karen Murray of nearby Newtown Square, happily camped out on their bench, have been coming to the show for 35 or 40 years. Like many of the “regulars,” the Murrays don’t attend another show all year. Why should they?

“There aren’t any other horse shows like this,” Karen explained.

Nearby, yellow crime scene tape cordoned off the benches taken over by Lori Hodge of Doylestown and her friends, who rode together a decade ago and arrive annually at Devon, even if they haven’t communicated with each other for the other 364 days of the year. Like those around them, they were having a giant party, played out during the late afternoon against the “Sunset at Devon” backdrop of a potpourri of saddlebred, hackney and coaching classes.

By the time the grand prix got under way at 8 p.m., they were keyed into the competition. The U.S. has show jumping events with double and even quadruple Devon’s prize money, but very few play to a crowd that is as engaged as the spectators here. When defending champion Night Train, with Darragh Kerins up, toppled a rail at the vertical three fences from the end of the course, the sympathetic moans from the fans swept the showgrounds like a disappointed breeze.

The field of 26 included several stars, but it looked to me like first place was practically a lock for Sapphire and McLain Ward, who was shooting for his sixth victory in the class. I was right about that. There were some big names going against him, including Todd Minikus with Pavarotti and Kent Farrington with Up Chiqui, both speedsters. They never got a chance to show off their turn of hoof, however. Pavarotti had 12 faults and Up Chiqui accumulated 16 faults before Kent called it a day.

However, last year’s Devon Leading Jumper Rider, Hillary Dobbs, was on form with the petite but fleet Quincy B, the first horse to go clear. He was joined by Sapphire and another of McLain’s mounts, Rothchild, as well as Allison, Callan Solem’s ride who tends to go well here. It was enough for a terrific jump-off, with a long run to the final fence, the Budweiser oxer, to rev up the crowd.

Hillary laid down quite a trip, finishing in a blazing time of 42.562. I wondered how McLain would beat that–it looked to me like Sapphire wasn’t as fast, but that was just because the two-time Olympic team gold medal mount made it look easy. She clinched it with a mark of 42.516 seconds.

The crowd was mesmerized by the performance of McLain Ward and Sapphire. | © 2009 by Nancy Jaffer

“We all know what Sapphire is,” said McLain, who compared her first round to an equitation trip and indeed, he won the McDevitt Style of Riding Award for his form.

Commenting that “she’s in the prime of her life” at age 14, he said, “We brought her here because this is a very important show in our country and it still means a lot to me to win this grand prix.”

McLain noted that he had his eye on the scoreboard clock as he came down the last line.

“I knew it was going to be close; that’s why I kind of spurred her through the timers a little bit,” he pointed out.

Callan appeared to be coming close down that final line, encouraged by the shouts of the crowd, but a rail down at the last would put her third in 42.880.

Although Rothchild, McLain’s rising star, sped around the turn to the last line, the Budweiser didn’t stay up for him and he was fourth in 43.121.

“He jumps a little bit funky,” said McLain, who didn’t like the horse when he first tried him, but has since come to appreciate the chestnut’s talents. “His heart’s in the right place. He’s unbelievably talented and athletic.”

Hillary and Callan were just glad “to be in the same second” time frame with McLain.

“I don’t think I’ve come that close ever,” Hillary commented, reflecting that perhaps she could have left out another stride on the first line, but she was still happy to finish where she did.

“I’m so thrilled with the way he jumped,” she said of Quincy, her 2008 Hampton Classic winner.

The victory was a triumph not only for McLain, but also for course designer Alan Wade of Ireland, making his Devon debut.

The brilliantly laid-out route offered some significant challenges, which were heightened by distractions because of the nature of the venue and riding under the lights. Analyzing the situation, McLain focused on the last line and the difficulty presented by the sixth and seventh fences, an imposing liverpool followed by the first Budweiser fence, a vertical.

“The liverpool was quite big and airy and then the three strides (to number seven), this ring has a little pitch to it, so it was a little bit downhill, I think that was difficult,” he said. “Then the last line, since they’ve taken the hedges away from the side of the ring, you really are really close to the people (so) the horses see the movement of their feet through the fence as they come through.”

McLain’s victory was a prelude to a long European trip this summer. I was eager to hear the details when we talked before he went to the VIP room to celebrate.

Glass Castle was the Grand Hunter champion with Havens Schatt aboard. | © 2009 by Nancy Jaffer

In contrast to the grand prix scene, the stands were practically empty when the professional hunter divisions had their stake classes on Wednesday. The owners and riders, of course, generated their own exhilaration with their triumphs. Havens Schatt was pumped after her round in the Regular Conformation Division on Shaw Johnson Price’s marvelous mare, Glass Castle. She earned a score of 90, the highest in any of the sections.

Before Shaw bought her, Glass Castle was owned by Caroline Moran, who sold her when she stopped riding. The mare has made quite a comeback from a series of misfortunes, including a bad spider bite that caused her to break out. When she recovered from that, she had a bout with colic, which meant she was shown sparingly last year–but her ability has certainly put her in the spotlight now.

Glass Castle’s victory in her Devon debut gave her 30 points overall to take the Grand Hunter Championship, ending the possibility of a hat trick for Scott Stewart, whose mounts had won it the last two years. In fact, it was an unusual Devon for Scott, who didn’t win any of the divisional titles. He did, however, manage to eke out his sixth straight Leading Hunter Rider victory, awarded to the competitor with the highest total of their best finishes in each class. He had 84 and 1/2 points, to 83 for Maggie Jayne, who won the Green Conformation Championship with Early Applause and the Second Year Green tri-color with Gianni. Even Scott had trouble believing he would get his name engraved again on the Leading Rider trophy, considering those circumstances.

Jennifer Alfano earned the Regular Working Hunter honors with Rock Star and won the Leading Lady Rider title as the best female competitor in that division. I know Devon is built on tradition, but at this point, isn’t that award a little outmoded? Not to take anything away from Jennifer, but come on, this is the 21st Century.

I spoke with Jennifer Burger, Rock Star’s owner, who was over the moon about getting another very special championship cooler to take home with her. The 12-year-old German-bred, who was purchased four years ago as an amateur-owner prospect, came from Louise Serio. But then plans changed, Ms. Burger said.

Jennifer Alfano with Regular Working Hunter Champion Rock Star and owner Jennifer Burger | © 2009 by Nancy Jaffer

“I had a hip injury and Jennifer started riding him. I’m healing and retired and being the happy owner. It’s the thrill of my life watching her ride him, because they’re perfect together,” she noted, adding he was Second-Year Green Champion here two years ago.

Rock Star took his title without a victory in the stake, which was won by Morgan Thomas of Minnesota with Blue Steel.

“He’s the real deal,” said Morgan, savoring his first Devon victory. This horse is so beautiful I was in awe of him; it is just a pleasure watching him go. Look for his picture in the Devon gallery.

I wanted to take something home with me to remind me of my time at the show, so I settled on a little enameled boot pin ($6) with Devon 2009 inscribed on it. If I had more disposable income, however, I could have filled the car with Devon trinkets. The souvenir booth has an overwhelming inventory, from the wicker picnic baskets ($65) like those carried by the boxholders to polo wraps with the Devon insignia ($15/pair) and ties ($65) with the Devon hackney pony insignia. You can be all Devon all the time if you blow your budget at the booth. Gail McCarthy, who runs the souvenir operation, informed me that it’s the show’s “number one volume booth,” even ahead of the hamburger stand!

I thought Gail had some interesting insights on her Devon customers.

Gail McCarthy at the souvenir stand | © 2009 by Nancy Jaffer

Devon appears to have been virtually unaffected by the economic downturn, which is taking a big toll on some other shows. Co-manager David Distler told me entries were off only about 3 or 4 percent, a testament to the fact that this is a “must” stop on the circuit for many. Young hunters were down but junior jumpers had a waiting list of 25.

In the regular hunter divisions–the professionals, juniors and amateur-owners–he noted, “If you win at Devon, your horse is suddenly ‘the horse.'” The same goes for the breeding classes, he said. Jumpers are a little more of a mixed bag–although there are plenty of good ones, not everyone comes. There’s a lot of competition. Spruce Meadows starts next week, HITS is ongoing, and the European Nations’ Cup tours take a toll, too.

But David noted, “I love the fact that McLain brought Sapphire, that’s his best horse. That means a lot to me, because the show means a lot to him. McLain is someone who believes in the history of the sport.”

And you would too, if you ever visited Devon. There’s a reason it has lasted for 113 years.

Even the magic of the Devon Horse Show does not stretch to guarantee
immunity from the weather, however, and a downpour early this morning wreaked havoc on the Friday show. The ring wasn’t sealed and the drains got clogged, making the Dixon Oval into a lake.

“Last night we hit a home run,” show committee chairman Leonard King told me this afternoon, referring to the Grand Prix.

“Today was a disaster. I haven’t seen anything like this in 50 years.”

Devon co-managers David Distler and Peter Doubleday inspect Lake Dixon Oval. | © 2009 by Nancy Jaffer

David Distler and his co-manager Peter Doubleday quickly regrouped, deciding which classes to run, which to postpone and which to cancel. The final coaching competition slated for this evening was scrapped; who wants to spend hours washing mud off an antique vehicle?

The local hunters continued this morning in the sloppy Gold Ring, but the morning Amateur-Owner Jumper class wasn’t held, and the Amateur-Owner Hunter competitions were postponed until Saturday. The show also was granted an extension by the U.S. Equestrian Federation to continue an extra day, on Sunday, when the Amateur-Owner Hunters will wrap up.

Riders and trainers walked the grounds with cell phones pinned to their ears, trying to re-arrange babysitters and plane flights before deciding whether to stay.

“What a mess,” said Florida trainer Bill Schaub, noting it was going to be expensive for everyone in his contingent to stay another evening at the $200/day hotel that is closest to the showgrounds. “We’re debating what to do.”

When the Amateur-Owner Jumpers finally did go in the afternoon, only eight showed up. Another of their classes was cancelled and the prize money will be combined with the other classes that are held.

The only person who was smiling was the salesman at the DuBarry of Ireland tent. He generally spends most of his day standing in a container of water to prove that the boots he sells are waterproof.

“I think you’re going to have a lot of business,” I commented. He just smiled broadly.

Check back the weekend of June 19 for my take on the U.S. Equestrian Federation/Collecting Gaits Farm National Dressage Championships.

Until then,

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!